Janet Spugnardi is a lawyer in the code compliance section of the Dallas City Attorney's Office, which means she takes property owners to court when their properties start to look like crap. She's also the one who gets the call when the city wants to tear down a "dilapidated" or "substandard vacant structure" within the city limits, which means she's also the city attorney who gets the call when reporters want to know why the city hasn't torn down one of those dilapidated or substandard vacant structures, like the one sitting at 3522 Herrling St. in the gone-to-hell Frazier neighborhood of South Dallas, located just off Second Avenue within yards of Fair Park.
Technically, that property--which is on the county tax rolls at $199,000, though it looks like it's worth about 34 cents--is known as the Herrling Court Apartments, but the building hasn't been livable in years. Its windows are boarded up, the wood paid for by Dallas taxpayers for at least a couple of years. Much of the roof is missing; the stairs to the second story look as though they were constructed out of Popsicle sticks. There's trash strewn across the former parking lot, some of it piled a good two feet high. Gangs have spray-painted the brick; the Crips have claimed it as their own. The building, a U-shaped complex that in recent years has been known to house junkie squatters, gives off the smell of stale piss and something recently dead; Spugnardi says at least one dead cat's been found in the place recently, and she wouldn't be surprised if something else crawled into the place to breathe its last.
For more than two years, the city has wanted to tear down the Herrling Court Apartments. But it hasn't. And it will not be able to do a thing about the place any time soon. Why not? The dispiriting answer to that question--and what it means to the future of revitalization in South Dallas--follows after the jump.
In November 2004, Spugnardi sued the couple listed as the owners of the property, Burdle Hill and Shawn Denise Edwards, who also own another property the city wants to demolish at 3306 Rutledge St., which is also within the confines of Frazier, so named for the former Frazier Courts public housing development recently torn down by the Dallas Housing Authority. (That is the subject of a cover story I wrote that appears in the issue of the Dallas Observer that hits the street today.) The problem is, Hill and Edwards filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy on June 19, 2003, and claim that when they went bust, they turned over the property to its previous owners, Robert and Marilyn Green. And what do the Greens have to say for themselves?
"That's a good question," Spugnardi says. "They have been avoiding my service, so I haven't heard from them. They have not filed an answer to the lawsuit, even though I have sued them all. So I am going to let the court make a determination about who it thinks is ultimately responsible for the property. And we're going to get an answer eventually; someone is going to be determined by the court to own the property at some point. We just haven't gotten there yet."
It was set for trial July 24 in district court, but the case was pushed back--for the third or fourth time, Spugnardi says. Other cases took priority, no doubt because they didn't involve a shitty piece of property in a part of the city abandoned by everyone in the city save code enforcement folks who paper the neighborhood in festive red and green violation notices. So the case is back on for December, at which point Spugnardi hopes to resolve the matter and, at last, tear down a place that's not merely a dangerous eyesore among dozens in Frazier but also a drain on city resources.
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"The city wants it demolished," Spugnardi says. "We've had to board it up, and the property on Rutledge, numerous times, and we've placed numerous liens on both. We've expended countless resources trying to keep it in as safe a condition as possible. What it looks like happened is Hill bought the place and fell into some kind of financial hardship, and instead of doing anything about it, the owners let the property go and fall into such a bad condition it needs to be demolished."
But, see, Herrling Court Apartments isn't the exception to the rule in South Dallas. It's rare for a multifamily apartment unit to fall into such a horrific state--Spugnardi says this is her first case involving one--but the attorney says "it's kind of common" for single-family residences to fall into teardown condition and wind up in court nonetheless. That's because when folks die in South Dallas, they don't leave any will, and the property falls into the hands of kinfolk who live God knows where, which makes tracking them down next to impossible and suing them all but useless. So the city slaps on its code violations, the property fills up with shattered windows and thrown-away tires and burned-to-a-crisp mattresses, and nobody can do a thing about it except let them rot to pieces in peace. Either that, or they're taken over by such landlords as G.W. Works (whose properties throughout the city are painted in a signature white with black trim) or Jack, Harold and Dennis Topletz, who acquire them for pennies on the dollar and rent the rundown properties to desperate tenants who've run out of options.
Much of this week's cover story deals with the efforts of former Trammell Crow chairman J. McDonald "Don" Williams' Foundation for Community Empowerment and its Frazier Revitalization Inc. subsidiary to clean up and turn around the neighborhood by bringing in new residential and retail that would piggyback on DHA's project to build hundreds of bright, shiny new public housing apartments where Frazier Courts used to stand. They'll use private money, since public efforts promise much and deliver much of nothing. They already have about a thousand things working against them--chiefly, decades' worth of neglect on the part of the city--but this is perhaps their biggest hurdle, trying to rid the neighborhood of property owners who've turned the Fair Park neighborhoods into junkyards, landfills and sewage spills. "It's our biggest challenge," says DHA President Ann Lott--or at least as enormous as finding the dough to redevelop Frazier and bring in retail and commercial businesses that left Frazier about the same time Ford drove away from its plant on Grand Avenue in 1968.
Herrling Court Apartments--which FCE once considered acquiring as a rehab property, only to find it tied up in litigation--is one small piece within a 1,100-acre neighborhood in which half of the properties have been deemed unlivable and unusable by renowned city planner Antonio DiMambro. But it may take the city finally tearing it down to prove to folks in Frazier that it's serious about cleaning up the neighborhood. --Robert Wilonsky